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The 5 Best DJ Controllers for Beginners Under $200

As an experienced DJ, I often get asked, "What is the best controller for beginners?" While the right gear won‘t make you a DJ overnight, having user-friendly hardware and software certainly accelerates learning essential mixing skills and creative techniques.

In this extensive guide, I‘ll explain everything beginners need to know about getting started with DJ controllers.

The Evolution of DJ Gear: From Vinyl to Controllers

DJ gear has come a long way from solely relying on analog turntables. While vinyl offers a nostalgic, authentic feel, the learning curve is steep and limitations abound when moving past simple blends.

The rise of digital music formats, audio software, and hardware controllers have made mixing far more accessible for novices while retaining the hands-on experience essential for developing skills and "feeling" your music.

DJ Controller Timeline

2004 First mainstream controller, Hercules DJ Console MK1
2009 Serato Scratch Live launch drives controller adoption
2011+ Pioneer, Numark, others launch controller divisions
2015 Over 100 controller models available
2022 $165M+ controller market with 20% CAGR forecast

While the "controller vs turntable" debate continues, what‘s undisputed is the greater accessibility to aspiring DJs that controllers provide. But with so many models now available, choosing your first device can be daunting.

I‘ve professionally tested over 50 controllers in the past decade ranging from $50 to $2,500 models. In this definitive guide for beginners, I‘ll cut through marketing claims and share exactly what matters when starting out.

Key Benefits of DJ Controllers for First-Timers

Compared to traditional vinyl or CDJ rigs, DJ controllers offer four distinct advantages for novices:

Cost Savings – Controllers range from $50 to $600 for beginner models versus $1,000+ for an entry level CDJ setup. Far more affordable to experiment with when first learning.

Software Integration – Controllers connect directly to DJ software for accessing your digital music library, planning sets, recording mixes, applying effects and more capabilities.

Portability – Smaller controllers rely solely on laptops and work with basic speaker setups. Easy to set up anywhere without complex audio configurations.

Accelerated Learning – Tactile controls like jog wheels, pads and faders paired with visual software displays speed up developing beatmatching and transition skills essential to mixing.

Make no mistake, vinyl offers unmatched authenticity and a special connection to your music. But as technology continues advancing, so do the capabilities and value offered by controllers. Most importantly for beginners, they lower the barriers to entry for mixing your own tracks.

What to Look For: Key Controller Features

With a crowded market filled with brands big and small, narrowing potential options starts by evaluating five core components:

Jog Wheels – Hand-touchable wheels mimic vinyl platters for adjusting music playback speed via scratching or nudging. Bigger is typically better. Look for jog wheels with touch sensitivity and tension adjustability for tactile scratching.

Faders – Sliding faders control volume levels between tracks and channels for smooth blending. Prioritize dedicated faders per channel versus smaller models with shared controls.

Performance Pads – Backlit rubber pads trigger hot cues for jumping within tracks, loops, effects and samples to add creative flair. Look for larger, velocity sensitive pads with aftertouch.

Mixer Layout – Knobs control equalization levels, filters and effects while cue and control buttons activate various modes/functions. Standard club-like layouts have shortest learning curves.

Connectivity – Most controllers have USB connections, but pay attention to built-in sound cards for connecting straight to speakers/headphones versus extra audio interface hardware needs.

As $200 models can satisfy fundamental needs for beginners, let‘s compare the leading options based on these criteria:

Model Jog Wheels Faders Pads Mixer Connections
Pioneer DDJ-400 Touch-sensitive, Tension Adj. Channel + Crossfader 16 Multicolor Club Layout Built-in Sound Card
Numark Mixtrack Pro Touch-Capacitive Channel + Crossfader 16 White Intuitive Layout Built-in Sound Card
Hercules DJControl Inpulse Touch-sensitive Shared Mixer 16 Multicolor Simple Interface Built-in Sound Card

While entry-level controllers meet basic requirements, comparison shopping still matters given variability in construction quality, features and software bundles. Prioritize models with the most tactile, logical controls that align with your budget.

Now let‘s examine software, the essential second component that transforms controllers from inert hardware into seamless music mixing machines.

DJ Software 101: Capabilities, Compatibility & Limitations

Without compatible software, controllers simply light up with pretty colors devoid of functionality. DJ programs analyze and organize music while unlocking controllers‘ capabilities for transitioning between tracks. Below I‘ll break down everything to know around compatibility, features and limitations of software options:

1. Serato DJ Lite/Pro – Bundled with many controllers, Lite has collection management, two decks and Recording. Pro upgrades to four decks, streaming sources, visual editors and Practice Mode. Some advanced controller features may be unmapped in Lite editions.

2. Rekordbox DJ – Optimized for Pioneer gear, excels at library management with tagging, playlists, cues and loops. Lacks complex sampler/sequencer functions but better for long term collection growth versus Serato.

3. Traktor Pro – Powerful effects, custom mapping and innovative Stems file format support make Native Instrument‘s software uniquely flexible. But also comes with a steeper learning curve.

4. Virtual DJ – Affordable licenses and straightforward interface have made Virtual DJ popular over 20+ years. Huge effects/video library integration but occasionally perceived as "cheaper" by club purists.

The good news is the barriers between these major players have lowered significantly in recent years. Controllers frequently support two or more software types, though might lack deeper integration or require upgrading from bundled "lite" versions to enable more advanced options.

While software choice debates rage on forums daily, any of the "big 4" offer more than enough capabilities for first-timers learning via controllers. Focus more on tactile hardware feeling intuitive since skills translate over time, unlike sunken software investments.

Next let‘s jump into optimizing your environment and integrations to get mixing music ASAP!

Setting Up Your Controller, Audio & Software

Eager to start mixing? Hold your horses! Properly setting up auxiliary components is essential for having a smooth experience versus endless glitchy headaches. Follow these steps and best practices when going from unboxing to rocking your first mix:

1. Install Software & Drivers
Don‘t connect your controller yet! First install your bundled DJ software and latest hardware drivers to avoid recognition issues down the road. Register and authorize software with activation codes, ideally upgrading Lite versions if included.

2. Connect Audio Interface
For the best sound quality and lowest latency, use an external audio interface. Connect to your controller first, then into your speakers/headphones, starting with volume levels at zero.

3. Connect Your Controller
Use the included USB cable to connect your controller and power it on. Wait until fully recognized by software, ensuring transport and other functions trigger properly.

4. Configure Audio Settings
Within both your operating system and DJ software, set your audio interface as the input/output device. Start with buffers at 256/11ms if using ASIO then tweak down for minimally distracting latency.

5. Import Your Music Library
Point your software to your system and external hard drives containing music. Optimize file tagging in bulk via third party tools like MP3TAG first for smoothest importing at scale.

Follow controller manuals strictly here – improper USB ports or incorrect sequence can stop everything in its tracks! But once all connections hum harmoniously, we can progress to the actual fun part.

Mixing Music 101: Beatmatching, Blending, Chopping

With your environment setup, let‘s outline core mixing techniques step-by-step to put those shiny controls into action:

Beatmatching – Sync tempos between tracks using jog wheels. Align kick drum beats on waveform displays via adjusted platters, tempo faders or sync buttons.

Phrase Mixing – Transition songs on phrase boundaries, avoiding trains of thought being cut off abruptly mid-sentence. Memorize track durations through active listening.

Blending – Gradually fade between tracks using channel faders or crossfaders for smooth transitions instead of jarring jumps.

EQ Mixing – Strategically cut frequencies between incoming and outgoing tracks. For example, reduce bass on old song when blending without clashes.

Chopping – "Cut up" tracks using loop controls and hot cues to repeat certain parts. Isolate instrumentals, vocals or climaxes for creative transitions.

Visual software displays act as cheat sheets for keeping place. But avoid staring at waveforms or BPM counters! Focus on audio cues from your speakers/headphones instead for keeping rhythm.

Internalizing these foundations allows confidently adapting to crowds, instead of being glued to sync glow buttons praying songs magically align. Deliberate practice is essential – don‘t believe DJ tables are solved by autopiloting apps!

Now let‘s move from mixing fundamentals to effectively incorporating effects, loops, samplers and complementary gear for unlimited creative potential unbounded by genres.

Creative Performance Techniques: Effects, Stems, Layering

While beatmatching and blending could occupy first years focused solely on clean transitions, dedicated controllers unlock far deeper creative tools too for punctuating mixes with your personal flair:

Effects – Filters, reverb and echo applied via knobs or pad triggers embellish tracks for energy or atmosphere. But use sparingly and avoid gimmicks overriding the original music.

Stems Separation – Isolate drums, vocals, bass or harmony elements by loading tracks in Native Instrument‘s Stems file format for richer customization and remixing capabilities.

Auxiliary Gear – Add modular hardware like samplers, synthesizers or drum machines via MIDI or analog connections for sprinkling original musicality atop tracks.

Layering – Overlap complementary melodies, vocals or guitar solos using multiple decks connects songs into unified stories vs disjointed leapfrogging tunes.

Effects act like sentence seasoning, but overuse ruins intended flavor. Learn instruments‘ roles through active listening first, then accentuate dynamics uniquely vs heavy-handed barrage.

Music rewards lifelong students – there‘s always new gear to incorporate as your collection and capabilities advance far beyond a controller alone. The journey of learning never truly ends.

Let‘s recap key advice tailored to major purchasing considerations when selecting your inaugural controller.

Choosing the Best Controller for Your Budget

Beginner controller options now range from bargain $50 models to advanced $600+ decks so all budgets have quality choices balanced against limitations:

Under $100 – Hercules DJControl Inpulse 200 offers essential mixing capabilities paired with Lite Software. But smaller platters and light plastic construction reflect the price.

$100-$200 – Numark‘s Mixtrack Pro FX fits in most backpacks for mobile DJs with touchstrips controlling software effects alongside essential deck controls.

$200-$300 – Pioneer‘s industry-standard layout shines through on their durable DDJ-400 driving pro-level Rekordbox software. A smart choice for long term investment.

$300-$500 – Denon DJ Prime GO transcends entry-levels by adding high resolution displays, club-style pads and advanced Serato capabilities like parallel waveforms.

Resist overspending as a novice – bedrock techniques translate across controllers. But ensure minimum viable size, connectivity and software to enable focused learning minus functional frustrations.

Upgrading to multiplayer professional gear inevitable once skills mature. But first diligently walk before running towards flashy extras that distract versus develop mixing mastery.

Progressing To Multi-Deck Controllers & Club Standards

While intro controllers build confidence quickly, their narrow scope limitations advanced workflows integrating additional music sources:

More Decks – Upgrade to four channel controllers, unlocking intermediate layering by bouncing between laptop tracks, external instruments and onboard samplers simultaneously.

Battle Mixers – Analog and standalone mixers specialize in chopping, scratching or smooth transitions depending on model – but require audio interfacing knowledge.

Modular Gear – Add CDJs, drum machines, synthesizers or live instruments via mixer inputs rather than relying solely on centralized controllers and music files.

Club Standards – Familiarize yourself with industry norms like Pioneer CDJ-2000s. Explore what options venues have on hand and practice your skills during open deck times.

Resist the fallacy that magic massively-complex controllers exist shortcutting foundational mastery. Progression means adding tools incrementally only after skillfully wielding basics in isolation.

Choose next steps strategically based on what skills or workflows remain constrained by current kit limitations. Budget for upgrading incrementally over upcoming years rather than all simultaneously.

The journey of distance learning never truly ends. But with the proper foundation, DJ gear evolves from obstacle to creative enabler unlocking our boldest musical visions.

In closing, I welcome all questions or feedback on charting your initial or prospective next DJ controller path using the comments section below!